Monday, September 11, 2006
Bonhoeffer's classic “The Cost of Discipleship” was based on the Sermon on the Mount. On the basis of the Sermon on the Mount he had boldly spoken out against Nazi anti-Jewish policies, and sought to persuade his fellow Germans to oppose Hitler. He argued that following Christ meant loving the “sick, the suffering, those who are demeaned and abused, those who suffer injustice and are rejected”1 in other words, the very people Hitler sought to eliminate. He called on Christians to follow their Lord in “giving their honor for those who had fallen into shame and taking their shame upon themselves”2 fully aware that this meant facing both imprisonment and death. Bonhoeffer was eventually arrested for helping Jewish families to escape into Switzerland. At that time, the plot to kill Hitler was still in its planning phase. The assassination was attempted a year later while Bonhoeffer was still imprisoned. In “Ethics” he explains his rationale for participating in the plot. Six years had passed since he wrote “The Cost of Discipleship” and now in “Ethics” the theme of the Sermon on the Mount so prevalent in Bonhoeffer's past writing was strangely absent. What had happened? Glen Stassen explains that Bonhoeffer's understanding of turning the other cheek in The Cost of Discipleship was mostly passive, a non-participation in evil rather than as a way of actively overcoming evil with good. Because of this, when he looked for a way to actively oppose Hitler, he did not find guidance in the Sermon on the Mount3. One wonders what someone with the vision and courage of Bonhoeffer might have done, had he understood love of enemies as an active way to combat evil.
At the time, Gandhi had just had major success with his nonviolent resistance against Brittan. Bonhoeffer had made plans to visit Gandhi at his Ashram in India and had received a formal invitation. As history had though Bonhoeffer never went. Instead he returned to Germany to join the underground Confessing church. In "The Cost of Discipleship" one can clearly see Bonhoeffer calling for nonviolent resistance
"The followers of Jesus have been called to peace...His Disciples keep the peace by choosing to endure suffering themselves rather than inflict it on others... in so doing they overcome evil with good, and establish the peace of God in the midst of a world of war and hate. But nowhere will that peace be more manifest than where they meet the wicked in peace and are ready to suffer at their hands. The peacemakers will carry the cross with their Lord for it was on the cross that peace was made."4
Gandhi and later King where able to organize massive nonviolent resistance against violent oppression. But when Bonhoeffer stood up, he stood virtually alone. "In 1933 Bonhoeffer was almost alone in his opinions; he was the only one who considered solidarity with the Jews, especially with the non-Christian Jews, to be a matter of such importance to obligate the Christian churches to risk a massive conflict with that state”5 If we must place blame here, it is not with Bonhoeffer, but with the church that ignored his cries. Bonhoeffer writes these scalding words,
“The church confesses that she has witnessed the lawless application of brutal force, the physical and spiritual suffering of countless innocent people, oppression, hatred and murder, and that she has not raised her voice on behalf of the victims and had not found ways to hasten to their aid. She is guilty of the deaths of the weakest and most defenseless brothers of Jesus Christ.”6
People often say that nonviolence would not have worked against Hitler, but where nonviolence was tried against the Nazis it did in fact work. Walter Wink chronicles how thousands of Bulgarian Jews and non-Jews participated in massive protests and civil disobedience and as a result, all of Bulgaria's Jewish citizens where saved from Nazi death camps. Similar success was achieved through nonviolent action in Romania who refused to surrender a single Jew to
the death camps, Finland which saved all but 6 of its Jewish citizens, and Denmark which smuggled 6500 of its 7000 Jewish population to safety.7 Nonviolent Resistance on a massive scale might have worked in Germany, but Bonhoeffer stood alone. In the absence of any alternatives that he could see, Bonhoeffer chose trembling before God to incur guilt for the sake of his fellow man rather than retain his purity while watching them suffer. Nonviolence does not always work, but then again violence does not always work either. The plot to assassinate Hitler failed, and in a brutal retaliation 5000 people were killed including Dietrich Bonhoeffer who was hanged by the Nazis on April 9, 1945.
1Bonhoeffer quoted in Kelly & Nelson, “The cost of Moral Leadership” p 92 from “Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works vol 4 - Discipleship”, p 106-7
3Glen Stassen and David Gushee, “Kingdom Ethics”, p 144. (See also Stassen's “Healing the Split in Bonhoeffer's Ethics” forthcoming)
4Cost of Discipleship p 126
5Heinz Eduard Tödt, quoted in “The Cost of Moral Leadership”, p 21
6Ethics p 50
7Engaging the Powers, p 254